Film Review: FairhavenNewcomer Tom O'Brien shows promise in this mellow drama about three buddies from small-town coastal Massachusetts.
Writer-director-actor Tom O’Brien’s feature debut, Fairhaven, is a small-scale but warmly satisfying drama about a trio of male friends from a sleepy Southeastern Massachusetts fishing village, reunited in their 30s for a funeral. Observed with emotional integrity and a sharp eye for both the comforting and claustrophobic details of hometown life, the film was a popular closing-night choice at the Provincetown Film Festival, where its bittersweet evocation of a coastal community from the region clearly struck chords.
Given that the central figure here is bad-boy Davey (Chris Messina), who blows back into town to reveal secrets and shake up dormant feelings, Fairhaven might almost be a less sardonic, guy-centric version of Young Adult. More than that, however, the film recalls another wintry reunion tale, the late Ted Demme’s 1996 feature Beautiful Girls, which also brought melancholy humor to its portrait of romantic yearning, static lives and male friendship.
Jon (O’Brien) is a former footballer still griping to his therapist about not being the next Tom Brady. His salt-of-the earth mother (Maryann Plunkett) runs a local diner, and he just quit his fishing-boat job to try writing full-time. He’s also nervously feeling his way around an open relationship with New Age-y “laughter therapist” Angela (Alexie Gilmore).
More settled but also seemingly drained of all expectation is Sam (Rich Sommer), a real estate broker still quietly carrying a torch for his ex-wife Kate (Sarah Paulson), with whom he shares custody of their daughter (Grace Collins).
When Dave begrudgingly returns for his estranged father’s funeral, the three once-inseparable friends’ brotherhood is rekindled. Having adapted to life out West, first in Las Vegas and then Arizona, Dave seems physically uncomfortable in the snowbound chill of Fairhaven. Any grief he might feel is outweighed by his hostility toward his father, and he keeps a lid on his emotions by partying hard, with weed, booze, coke and a friendly stripper.
The guys slot back into old patterns easily enough, but Jon is unsettled by Dave’s casual confession of his history with Kate, which prompted him to leave town ten years ago and stay away. The revelation threatens to rupture the pact of friendship that has remained in place despite Dave’s long absence. It’s to O’Brien’s credit that while he paves the way for dramatic fireworks, the awkward past is unearthed in quieter though still emotionally stirring terms.
There’s a lovely economy to the writing, especially in the more loaded scenes such as a conversation between Dave and his Portuguese mother (Phyllis Kay), or two tremendously well-played encounters between Dave and Kate. Messina’s character is often abrasive, but the actor deftly exposes the bruised underbelly beneath his brash recklessness. And Paulson is incandescent, outlining years of hurt with just a soulful stare and a handful of words.
Sommer (“Mad Men”) is touching in an understated performance as a guy who initially seems like a poor, lonely schlub, but visibly lightens up when a promise of romance surfaces. While his character's writing aspirations are underexplored, square-jawed, handsome O’Brien has a nice way with deadpan dialogue and effectively allows glimpses of the subconscious resentment the introspective Jon feels toward Davey for getting out.
The film’s conclusions are subtle and deliberately unresolved, the point being that these friendships are too deeply forged to be lost. The naturalistic depiction of the relationships extends also to the authenticity of the setting, exquisitely shot in soft, somber light and with a refined compositional eye by cinematographer Peter Simonite. The acoustic and ambient score by prog-rockers Blow Up Hollywood (Messina’s brother Steve is a band member and songwriter) further enhances the mood of this intimate, heartfelt drama.
—The Hollywood Reporter